The fresh Prince of Brunei

November 4, 2010

BRUNEI/By Mark Hosenball

The veins of Prince Jefri of Brunei may course with Royal blood and, though depleted by years of lawsuits, his bank accounts probably still hold enough riches to fund an imperial lifestyle. But the brother of the Sultan of Brunei didn’t get much respect from British High Court Judge Sir Peter Smith when, two years ago, Jefri failed to appear in court for a scheduled cross-examination on his tangled legal and financial affairs. (For a special report on Prince Jefri’s legal battles, click here. )

Sir Peter, who gained international attention  as the Judge who wove his own secret message into a ruling he handed down rejecting a literary theft claim filed against “Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown, showed little deference to Prince Jefri’s royal status when handing down a decision to issue a bench warrant for the prince’s immediate arrest if he sets foot on British soil.

According to a 2007 ruling from Britain’s Privy Council, Jefri served for 15 years from 1983 as chairman of the Brunei Investment Authority (BIA), an agency which holds and manages the principality’s vast oil wealth. Auditors later discovered that during Jefri’s stewardship of the agency, around $40 billion worth of “special transfers” were made from BIA accounts, and that $14.8 million had “been paid to or applied for the benefit of” Prince Jefri, according to the Privy Council.

Following the audit, a battalion of lawyers representing the Sultan and the BIA launched a worldwide treasure hunt to locate and recover assets Jefri allegedly misappropriated. Eventually, Jefri signed a settlement deal with the BIA. But according to the Privy Council, he continued nonetheless to hold onto assets which he ostensibly had agreed to surrender. This led the British Law Lords to accuse Jefri of offering excuses which were “simply incredible,” “devoid of weight” and “hopeless.”

The June 11, 2008 hearing was scheduled so that Jefri could be questioned under oath as to whether he should be held in contempt of court for continuing to squirrel away assets which he had promised to give up. But Jefri didn’t show. “Tell me, where is he ? Do you know ?” a peeved Justice Smith demanded, according to a transcript of the hearing which was obtained by Reuters. “My lord, I don’t know where he is. He is abroad,” Jefri’s barrister replied.

BRUNEI/Justice Smith was not impressed: “Is it his position ever to come voluntarily ?” the judge demanded. “My lord, I’m not in a position to answer that,” Jefri’s lawyer answered.

After several minutes of legal ruminations, the Judge declared that in light of Jefri’s absence, he was going to issue a “bench warrant for the arrest of Prince Jefri” and noted for good measure, that “If he is arrested, he will need an advocate of great skill to persuade me that he ought to have bail.”  The judge noted that were Jefri to set foot in Britain at a time the judge himself was away – for example, in August, when U.K. judges tend to go on vacation – “he might be in other alternative accommodation for some time.”

The judge said that if Jefri ever does appear in his court on the witness stand, he assumed that lawyers for the BIA would want to “cross-examine him about how he thought he was able to spend so much money when he did not own any of it…”

A legal source involved with the case says that Justice Smith’s warrant for Jefri is still in effect and that if the Prince sets foot in Britain, he will be arrested.

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